08/28/2012 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Becoming Chaplin


It's fair to assume anyone playing Charlie Chaplin in a musical has an army of proud dance teachers to thank. Chaplin charmed audiences through movement, so much so that the humorist W.C. Fields insisted he wasn't an actor at all but a "goddamn ballet dancer." Even wearing the baggy pants and bowler hat of his iconic creation, the Tramp, his every shrug and kick broadcasts as clearly as a series of pirouettes. But excepting a stint with a touring clog troupe as a child, Chaplin never formally trained his body. His expertise came mostly by way of auto-didacticism.

It's fitting then, that Rob McClure, star of the Broadway musical Chaplin, which opened Sunday, is a leading man transformed by crash courses. “I put myself in the ‘move well’ category,” the 30-year-old New Jersey native told Huffington, a reference to industry parlance for agile actors or actresses who aren’t dancers. “Move well” types are commonly pushed to tap on beat, or slide across a stage.

It’s rare they find themselves roller skating backwards while tipping a hat, however, as McClure does in a particularly memorable Chaplin number.

To ready himself for a season of roller skating, tightrope walking, and circumnavigating a spinning table on the Barrymore Theater’s stage, McClure became the willing student of what he and director Warren Carlyle call a “Chaplin bootcamp.”

“The first day they had me running on that table, I was terrified,” McClure said in a phone interview. “It’s a spinning table that’s a foot and a half away from the edge of the stage. All I was thinking was, ‘Really, how do I do this without killing myself? And how do I make it look easy?’”

McClure and his two understudies followed a cross-borough regimen — “tightrope three times a week in Brooklyn, jump rope three times a week in Manhattan, and roller skating three nights a week after rehearsal,” Carlyle said. A photograph of Chaplin learning to walk a tightrope for the first time, on the same day he shot his famous highwire scene in "The Circus", is now a totem for McClure. He hasn’t said “no” to a challenge yet, according to Carlyle.

Still, certain stunts are out of McClure’s ken, due to Chaplin’s genius for special effect. In Chaplin’s first act, McClure as Chaplin rolls actual footage of the movie Pay Day to show his half-brother Sydney (played by Wayne Alan Wilcox) how running the tape backwards makes him appear to be catching bricks with ease rather than throwing them. The moment doubles as a demonstration for the audience, of what the production is up against in translating film to the stage. “Chaplin could throw his hat on the back of his chair, and do it once, and that’s a take,” McClure said. “We had to come up with tricks that are impressive but that I can do eight times a week.”

Working together in the same configuration, McClure and Carlyle originated the musical in 2010, under the title Limelight at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. For its Broadway incarnation, Carlyle aimed to cover Chaplin’s life from birth to death by filtering the story’s biographical passages through homages to Chaplin’s films.

Intercutting the drama with hoops for McClure to jump through was Carlyle’s strategy for casting a spell over audience members who hold Chaplin in the highest regard as a performer. Once dazzled, they might believe McClure’s character throughout.

“In the scene where Rob becomes the Little Tramp, the final piece of that puzzle is a cane tossed from the side, and as he looks to catch it, a bright light is shining in his face,” Carlyle said. “It’s a series of impossible tasks, but when you add them up, you’ve created someone who’s extraordinary.”

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.